Fields About To Take Wheel At Ford, Reports Say

Ford CEO Alan Mulally is going to take the exit ramp earlier than had been anticipated, according to numerous reports sourced by unnamed insiders this morning but first reported by Bloomberg yesterday, with 53-year-old COO Mark Fields taking his place. The formal announcement is reportedly set for next month, with the actual transition taking place by July. Earlier, Mulally had indicated that he’d step down at the end of the year.

“Fields, a 25-year veteran of Ford, was tapped to become Ford’s No. 2 executive after leading the automaker’s North American operations from deep losses to record profits,” Bloomberg’s Keith Naughton writes.

Ford itself “refused to confirm the reports that an announcement is imminent,” Chris Woodyard and Alisa Priddle report in USA Today. “For competitive reasons, we do not discuss our succession plans externally. If something were to change, we would let everyone know,” spokeswoman Susan Krusel said in a statement.

Mulally, who came to Ford from Boeing, had been considered for the Microsoft CEO position that eventually went to Satya Nadella, and his “protracted” involvement in that process may have hastened his departure from Ford, the Wall Street Journal’s Mike Ramsey indicates. “Some” fellow “directors criticized Mr. Mulally for allowing the Microsoft courtship to ‘go on way too long,’” a source tells Ramsey. “That didn't make the board happy.”

Only the timing is seen as a surprise, however. As the New York Times’ Bill Vlasic wrote more than two years ago, “Fields is the odds-on favorite within Ford to succeed” Mulally. And Fields “has been running the company's weekly business review — Mr. Mulally's signature creation — for more than a year,” Ramsey points out.

Fields “is enshrined in corporate legend for once telling Mr. Mulally in an executive meeting that [his North America operations] team was having problems meeting certain goals,” Jeff Bennett, Mike Ramsey and Christina Rogers report in a separate piece in the Wall Street Journal that carries the hed, “Ford Boss Reinvented Himself.”

“The remarks earned him a round of applause from Mr. Mulally, who felt the gesture went a long way to breaking through the company's ‘keep it quiet’ culture,” they continue.

Fields, like General Motors CEO Mary Berra, is a “lifer” and “insider,” observes Bloomberg Businessweek’s Kyle Stock, unlike the executives who preceded them, which offers “many” advantages. 

“A new boss from the inside knows the business and already has personal relationships with employees, suppliers, and dealers,” Stock writes. “And he or she presumably knows car world minutiae — the difference, say, between a naturally aspirated engine and a turbocharged model.”

Fields, a Brooklyn native and Rutgers graduate, first worked for IBM, then got a Harvard MBA before joining Ford, where he turned around its Argentina operation. “Analytical and hardworking, he was sent to Mazda Motor Corp. in 1998 and a year later, at 38, was promoted to president of the company, which at the time was a third owned by Ford, and had to lead a restructuring and rebranding effort,” the WSJ reports.

“Fields was highly visible in New York as the automaker unveiled a 50th anniversary edition of the Mustang” at the New York Auto Show, reports CNBC’s Philip LeBeau. 

“I now take over some of the [business plan review] meetings and the running of the daily operations of the company, but we are all working as one team and staying very focused on this record number of launches, growing the business both here and in international markets,” Fields said last week.

Ford has had some tumultuous transitions in its past, as executive chairman Bill Ford, the great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford, knows from experience.

“A lot of great CEOs leave and then there’s chaos behind them,” Ford said April 16 on Bloomberg TV,” reports Bloomberg’s Naughton. “Alan and I have talked about that — the importance of the final act of a great CEO is having a great transition.”

“A smooth hand-over of power at Ford would contrast with its history of tumultuous transitions, which included Bill Ford firing CEO Jacques Nasser in 2001 and Henry Ford II dismissing Lee Iacocca in 1978,” points out Naughton. “Bill Ford replaced himself as CEO by hiring Mulally almost eight years ago as the company faced record losses.”

There have been 10 CEOs of the company since its founding, according to a slide show on ClickonDetroit.com (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Mulally, of course, “leaves on a high note,” as USA Today’s Chris Woodyard and James R. Healey put it in a retrospective on his eight-year tenure. A lasting legacy, if the company is to continue on the path be blazed, will be an emphasis on “team play.”

“‘Everyone is part of the team, and everyone's contribution is respected, so everyone should participate,’ he told consultants McKinsey & Co. in November. When people feel accountable and included, it is more fun.”

Tags: automotive
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